There are many people on both sides of the political spectrum who believe that faith communities should steer clear of political matters.
I believe they are gravely mistaken. While we must not engage in partisan political acts such as endorsing candidates and parties, to remain silent on the pressing issues of our time is to abrogate our moral responsibility.
While on sabbatical a year ago, I spent a month in my ancestral homeland of Lithuania. Jewish life flourished there for centuries, then ended in horrific tragedy as the Nazis and their local collaborators slaughtered the entire Lithuanian Jewish community. Walking the streets of Vilnius and Kaunas, I was astounded at how many churches line the borders of the former ghettos and roads to the killing fields and forests. The Nazi transports carrying the victims to the slaughter rolled past, day and night, unhindered as local priests and churchgoers went about their rites in ordinary time. These clergy and parishioners dismissed the humanitarian act of rescuing Jews — which was also undeniably political — as a course best avoided by a church that perceived itself above the taint of worldly affairs.
This avowedly apolitical approach to religion has enabled a great deal of evil. Martin Luther King addressed this concern in Letter from Birmingham Jail, his searing response to the Southern white clergy who considered political advocacy at odds with faithful community. Writing from his prison cell in April of 1963, King rebuked moderate rabbis, priests and ministers for being “more cautious than courageous.” He lamented:
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I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say, “Those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other-worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.
As we mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death, let us take note: Torah has no patience for disengaged spirituality. The Hebrew Bible is the most un-ethereal of holy books, focused on the mundane labors and frequent failures of flesh and blood human beings. The God of Israel has plenty to say about political matters, directly addressing poverty, violence, immigration and bigotry. The very first chapter of Genesis offers the still-revolutionary principal that every woman, man and child is created in the Divine Image. The heart of Scripture is the unapologetically political tale of a people’s journey from slavery to freedom; its fundamental teaching — repeated 36 times — is the radical manifesto: You shall not oppress the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. To be true to Torah is to see that neutrality is not a moral option; as Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel warned us: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.”
For faith communities today, the hour is urgent. Racism runs rampant, and nativist bigotry toward Muslims, Latinos and other immigrant communities tears at the fabric of our nation. This is no time to shy away from political action, to cower behind what Dr. King called the “anaesthetizing security of stained glass windows.” This is an hour for audacious deeds. As Hillel taught: If we are not for ourselves, who will be for us? If we are only for ourselves, what are we? And if not now, when? This is the season to say what we mean and mean what we say. Now is the time to resist, with words and deeds.
Our world — and our faith — depend on it.
Dan Fink is the rabbi for the Ahavath Beth Israel congregation.
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.